Visions of a Dreamer: Keane Southard’s Waltzing Dervish


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Keane Southard (1987- ) is a composer and pianist whose work is influenced by a variety of styles including standard classical and pop and folk influences.  This major debut disc is a fine sampling of his work though it is important to realize that his work is for diverse ensembles of pretty much every description and the present sampling is of music for wind ensemble.

Just like every specialized grouping, be it string quartet, string orchestra, wind quintet, solo piano, full orchestra, etc., one encounters composers with varying degrees of facility in each configuration.  Southard seems very much at home with the wind ensemble/band and its possibilities.  A quick look through his extensive works list at his site suggests a hugely prolific musician with a wide variety of skill sets in a variety of musical configurations.  Wind ensemble is clearly one of his strengths and the Northeastern State University Wind Ensemble of Oklahoma under conductor Norman Wika are up to the challenges.  Southard playfully refers to this grouping as a “wind powered” ensemble using it as a metaphor for ecologically sustainable power systems.

There are nine tracks of which three are transcriptions of other composers’ work and the remaining six are by Southard.  His metaphors are as eclectic as his musical choices but fear not, his choices are friendly ones.  The first track, Waltzing Dervish sets the tone as an original and substantial composition of some ten minutes duration in which he takes on the waltz and its various meanings both public and personal to create an original band composition concerned as much with ecological metaphor as with a striving for multicultural diversity in an optimistic and thoughtful exploration of what can easily be a tired dance form.

The second piece is an arrangement of a piece by Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), one of the composers whose music he encountered during his 2013 Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil.  The piece is scored for optional choir (not used in this recording) and band, an arrangement Southard made with the intention of sharing this music as a highly viable selection for concert band.  It is indeed a joyous affair and one could easily imagine this being adopted as a staple in the rarefied realm of concert band music.

Do You Know How Many You Are? is the composer’s 2013 band arrangement of a 2010 choral piece which he describes as having basically come to him in a dream.

Claude Debussy’s Menuet (ca. 1890) was originally a piano piece which Southard envisioned in this orchestrated form during the course of his studies of orchestration.  That sort of inspiration is not uncommon for a composer but the result is not always as ideal as the composer imagined.  Fortunately this orchestration works quite well and again would proudly fit in a given band’s repertoire as an audience pleasing piece.

The next piece, originally an orchestral piece from 2013 is presented in the composer’s own arrangement for band.  No Interior Do Rio De Janeiro (2013/15) is another of the inspirations from the composer’s 2013 Fulbright Fellowship and was inspired by his work with “Orquestrando a Vida”, a Brazilian music project inspired by Venezuela’s famed “El Sistema”.  The band version was written on a commission from the present NSU Wind Ensemble.  Here is perhaps a departure from the dance theme of the first three tracks.  It seems to be a thesis or musical diary entry reflecting his personal take on the experience of working with this project though the spirit of the dance remains throughout.

Carousel (2008/2010) is the arrangement for band of the third movement of a mini-symphony (perhaps a scherzo?) for orchestra.  Curiously he describes his inspiration as coming from the sound of the calliope, a sort of steam driven organ common in circuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cortège et Litanie (1922) by French composer and organist Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) is a bit of a departure.  Neither a dance nor derived from Brazilian sources this piece was originally written for organ.  The organ (like the calliope in the previous piece) is arguably a wind instrument and this transcription retains some of the ambiance of that grand instrument.  It is among Dupré’s better known pieces and seems a natural for band.

Uma Pasacalha Brasiliera (2015) is a commission from a the Arrowhead Union High School Wind Ensemble and conductor Jacob T. Polancich.  The composer describes various influences in the circuitous path the the completion of this work but it is basically a sort of homage to the baroque form of the pasacaglia (variations over a repeating bass line) as well as to some of the great folk song influenced composers such as Percy Grainger.  Brazilian influences dominate much of the composer’s work from this period and they combine with the aforementioned baroque and folk influences to form a wonderfully creative take on that form of baroque counterpoint.

Finally the big finale is presented in another transcription, this time of a concerto for piano and organ from 2008.  Of course the organ again lends it’s sound easily to a band transcription and we have this Concertino for Piano and Wind Band (2008 rev. 2015) which allows us to hear the considerable keyboard skills of the composer.  This is the most substantial work on the disc and provides a satisfying finale to this portrait of a prolific and optimistic young composer at the very successful beginnings of what this writer (optimistically) hopes will be a long and productive career.

 

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Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition.  The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc.  There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.

This album is a fine example of such pluralism.  Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description.  But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp.  As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.

The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s.  This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole.  They fit remarkably well.

This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like.  The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial.  From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.

The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric.  This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth.  This is a very engaging piece.

Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities.  This is a major work and a lovely recording.

 

 

 

American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


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Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

RIP Hans Werner Henze


I just learned last night that the great German composer Hans Werner Henze died on Saturday October 27th at the age of 86.  I have been fascinated by this man and his music since the mid 1970s.  While generally classified as a sort of neo-romantic these days I recall the man and the music of controversy.

Henze was, for me, one of the great political composers and stands with the likes of Luigi Nono, Hans Eisler.  His compositions like ‘Essay on Pigs’, ‘The Raft of the Frigate Medusa’, ‘El Cimmaron’, and the 6th Symphony stand out as some of the finest political commentary achieved in classical music.  The premiere of The Raft of the Frigate Medusa had to be cancelled due to political protests which broke out in the concert hall and among the musicians themselves.

Though he may be better known for his wonderful operas and film scores (which I like as well) I will always remember when DGG suddenly dropped Henze from their catalog in the 1970s due to how politically hot he was.  I recall his interview in Stereo Review, I believe, where he discussed his homosexuality and denigrated his German homeland for their discriminatory practices.  Henze had moved to Italy where he spent many productive years.

Much of his music has, for me, a sort of “in your face” quality that reminds me of the expressionism of Schoenberg and the sound world of Varese.  Pieces like the Essay on Pigs will still not fail to offend, repel and fascinate listeners because of it’s dissonant style and unusual extended vocal techniques as well as the political content of the text.  One of my favorite Henze pieces will always be the noisy and very dissonant 6th Symphony which he composed during a stay in Cuba.  And while his style mellowed somewhat after that his compositional approaches were frequently pushing the envelope using tape, spoken voices and dissonances that worked well in the context of his work.

The sweeping grandiose orchestral works include ballets, 10 symphonies, various concerti.  His operas are rather frequently performed.  And his chamber music, including 5 string quartets, deserve more attention.  It is clear as to why he is considered a sort of neo-romantic and I don’t think that that is at odds with his political convictions.  Henze seems to me to have been an idealist, supporting progressive and radical political ideas as a part of his grand and all embracing  style.  Harsh sounds did not need to be excluded from his sonic pallete.  He seems to have embraced a wide variety of techniques and sustained a long and productive career.  Perhaps he was the ideal post-modern romantic.

RIP, Hans.  We go on listening.  Thank you for the sounds.

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